August 2010

Historical Metallurgy

The beginnings of mineral processing research in Canada (Part 6)

By F. Habashi

Further developments in academic, industrial and government research

Pressure hydrometallurgy

In 1945, Sherritt-Gordon Mines began funding the work of  University of British Columbia researcher Frank F. Forward, who was studying the recovery of nickel from nickel sulphide deposits at Lynn Lake, Manitoba. Forward’s investigations resulted in the development of the ammonia pressure leaching technique and the precipitation of metallic nickel from solution by hydrogen under pressure.

Closely associated with this research was another scientist, Vladimir Nicolas Mackiw. Born in Ukraine, Mackiw had studied at the Universities of Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland), Erlangen (Germany) and Louvain (Belgium) before coming to Canada in 1948 and joining Sherritt-Gordon Mines. That year, Sherritt discussed with the Chemical Construction Corporation (a subsidiary of American Cyanamid, also known as Chemico) the establishment of a small pilot plant in Canada to research the ammonia leach process. The process was to be explored for Sherritt’s Lynn Lake Mine whose remote location, lack of access to energy and supplies, and relatively low ore reserves rendered an on-site smelter unviable.

Meanwhile, Forward’s successes in applying the ammonia leaching process prompted the establishment of a small pilot plant in Ottawa where tests were to continue on nickel-copper concentrate. Mackiw soon joined Forward’s Ottawa-based team and made an important breakthrough. He discovered that copper could be precipitated from the leach solution as copper sulphide prior to nickel removal, when the solution was boiled at atmospheric pressure, due to the presence of trithionate and thiosulphate ions. This discovery made it potentially possible to recover nickel directly by reduction from the leach solution and foregoing the precipitation of nickel ammonium sulphate, a step that was earlier regarded as indispensible.

Next, Mackiw and his colleagues turned their attention to the chemistry of the nickel reduction step. While they worked on the ammonia leach in Ottawa, Chemico made important headway in advancing the hydrogen reduction process at a pilot facility in Stamford, Connecticut. Chemico’s researchers found that nickel could be deposited onto fine seed particles (instead of plating vessel walls) and that the resultant powder could assume the form of a marketable product by successive depositions. In 1953, Mackiw and his group demonstrated the compaction of nickel powder into briquettes. By 1965, all Canadian five- and ten-cent coins were made using Sherritt’s nickel and by 1980, about 40 per cent of the Western world’s refined nickel was produced by the techniques developed by Sherritt and Chemico.

Another significant researcher to work at Sherritt-Gordon’s Ottawa testing facility was Britain’s David J.I. Evans, who had graduated from the Royal School of Mines in London with a PhD in 1953. He rose rapidly through the ranks at Sherritt-Gordon Mines, becoming the director of research in 1967 and a vice-president at the Fort Saskatchewan plant in Alberta in 1973. He co-edited the proceedings of the International Laterite Symposium (1979, SME-AIME, New York).

Among Sherritt-Gordon’s impressive stable of in-house researchers was Wasyl Kunda, a graduate of the Technical University in Prague. Working with Forward and Mackiw, Kunda made important contributions to the fields of hydrometallurgy and powder metallurgy.

Iron and steel

In 1948, Canada imported 93 per cent of its iron ore. By 1970, largely as a result of intensive exploration in Ungava Bay, this had decreased to 18 per cent, as Canada became the world’s fourth largest iron ore producer after the former USSR, the United States and France. Since the deposits discovered were of low grade, tests were conducted to enrich the ores by mineral processing techniques. In 1959, scientific attention turned to the production of iron by direct reduction. A large sample of Canadian iron ore, enriched at the laboratories of the Mines Branch, was sent to Niagara Falls, Ontario for testing at the Strategic Udy pilot plant.

Short but productive careers

Mineral processing research in Canada was advanced by the progressive achievements of many researchers who dedicated entire lifetimes to their work. Unfortunately for Canadian science, some of these lifetimes were all too short. Most notable among the scientists who passed away in their prime were Yves Bérubé, J. Keith Brimacombe, Gilles Barbery and André Robert Laplante.

Yves Bérubé, who was born in Montreal in 1946, joined Laval University after earning a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1966. In 1976, he entered the political arena, holding various posts in the Quebec government — Minister of Natural Resources, Minister of the Treasury, followed by Minister of Higher Education. He died in 1993 at the age of 53.

J. Keith Brimacombe was born in Windsor, Nova Scotia, and graduated from the University of British Columbia. He won a Commonwealth Fellowship and travelled to England to study under F.D. Richardson at the Royal School of Mines. He completed his education at the University of London and returned to the University of British Columbia in 1970 as an assistant professor. In the following years, he established a research program in metallurgical process engineering and built a large interdisciplinary research group that worked in collaboration with Canadian companies such as Stelco, Hatch Associates, Algoma Steel, Cominco, Inco and Alcan. In 1985, Brimacombe founded the Centre for Metallurgical Process Engineering at the University of British Columbia and became its first director. His research — focused on industrial metal production processes such as the continuous casting of steel, the flash smelting of lead and copper converting — was cut short by his death in 1997 at the age of 55.

Gilles Barbery was born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France, and received his bachelor’s degree in engineering from the Paris School of Mines. He went on to obtain an M.Sc. from Columbia University in New York, and a Diploma from the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London. His first professional assignment was in Bolivia (1966-1967), where he participated in a project on the beneficiation of tin ores. After graduating from Imperial College, he joined Laval University as an assistant professor. Between 1971 and 1976, he returned to England, lecturing at Imperial College. From there, he returned to France and became the director of the Mineral Processing Department of the Bureau de recherches géologiques et minières at Orléans. Concurrently, he also held adjunct professor positions at the Paris School of Mines and the University of Orléans. In 1982, Barbery became an associate professor at Laval University. After his untimely demise in 1989 at the age of 46, a book that he had been working on — Mineral Liberation: Measurement Simulation and Practical Use in Mineral Processing — was edited and published posthumously.

André Robert Laplante was keenly interested in and contributed extensively to gravity-based gold recovery methods. He joined McGill University’s Department of Mining, Metals and Materials Engineering in 1980, after serving at the University of Toronto and Montreal’s École Polytechnique. An outstanding and dedicated teacher, he met his end at age 53, in a cross-country skiing accident. CIM’s Canadian Mineral Processors Society disburses an annual scholarship of $5,000 in his honour.

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